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A New Capital?

Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, fires, floods, the melting ice caps, the rising sea level, tsunamis, drought, mud slides, unprecedented temperatures and mass migration into Europe and Australia, North Korea and the USA – the beginning end of the world, perhaps?

Certainly it’s a grim, frightening prospect. Faced each morning by news of these almost daily worldwide disasters we need to be thankful for the country’s great natural beauty and for the peace that we still enjoy. Both, we must always realise, are so easily lost.

So I look around for more cheerful, recent topics to lighten the gloom and quickly arrive at two places, which have so dramatically emerged, from their contrasting pasts, Palapye and Francistown. The Sunday Standard reported (September 3-9) that Minister Olopeng, waxing positively lyrical, had commented (in the National Assembly) that Palapye is endowed with all the requirements of a capital city – a passing remark or something that needs to be taken more serious? He had reported that the government will build a multi-million pula horse-racing track there, and that four new shopping malls are in the pipeline. Further, it was made known that the government intends to construct an international airport in Palapye with a 5,200 metre runway for which 2,400 hectares of land had already been acquired near Moremi village.  Both the horse racing track and international airport are startling ideas.

Discussion about them, however, can only be of limited value if both have already been approved. Nevertheless, it cannot be entirely without point to ask what kinds of justification there have been for constructing a horse-racing track? Was there perhaps a massive, maybe hidden, and previously unrealised demand or is this, in fact, a reaction to a South African need? I imagine that it would have occurred to very few of us that a new airport might be needed at Palapye.  

Even fewer might have believed that an international airport capable of coping with the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 747 with passenger capacities of 525 and 467 respectively, has now become such a priority that construction is scheduled to begin in between two and four years. Why is it believed that such planes will fly into Palapye when they don’t fly into Gaborone? Could it be that Palapye is being seen as the jumping off point for the Okavango, but if that is the case why would it have taken precedence over Francistown? Indeed why would Francistown not react with much umbrage to the news that it has been so sensationally side lined? For me,the only possible explanation that might make a degree of sense is that a decision has already been taken to dump Gaborone and make

Palapye the new national capital.  

In that case, the implications of Minister Olopeng’s seemingly chance remark would be enormous. But let’s use Hilda Bernstein’s description of her 1963 arrival in Palapye to show the extraordinary difference between the place as it was then and the place as it now is! “At half-past three in the morning, we stop; we don’t want to arrive in Palapye before dawn. We gather dry wood from the road verge and light a fire, a great red blaze in the heart of Bechuanaland.

It is like being alone on a planet in space, suspended in a dark universe without beginning or end. We drive on. The sky reddens and lightens. At about six in the morning we approach Palapye. Mud huts with thatch roofs set within circles of twisted branches of thorn trees, protection against leopards or lions.

The village is just waking, letting the cattle out of kraals in what must be the very centre of Palapye. An outpost of the Empire.

We drive to the dusty compound where the Union Jack flies from the single-storey buildings; the police station…This dusty space with a few one-storey brick and pise-de-terre buildings with corrugated-iron roofs, a thin tree or two, people standing in groups waiting around or squatting beneath the dried and leafless branches; this area without pattern or order or design, without defined roads or pavements, is in effect the town centre of Palapye”. Francistown is rightly ambitious and is clearly doing its best to emerge from its grim past and be a city of which  everyone can be proud. That said, it is worth bearing just how much has been achieved since 1971 when the distinguished British journalist visited it and found little to admire.  

‘Outside the white-dominated main street with its two hotels and its two banks and the bakery, one walks a mile along the tracks to the ‘location’ which lacks any amenities and lies athwart the river’s flood basin. Close to the town with its banks and railway and its power-house and metalled road, the location looks, and is squalid.

According to the Development Plan, 14,000 people in Francistown need to be re-housed. Francistown is a company town of a type that is gradually disappearing. With de facto segregation, black and white seem to accept their roles uncomplainingly. The bar of the Grand Hotel is horse-shoe shaped; the blacks sit on one side, the whites on the other.

Etcetera II



Ke a phantsha

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